St. Louis Metro ATU Workers Declare Victory, Secure Agreement Preserving Retirement Security; Union Calls on Metro Board, Officials to Address Racist ‘Oreo’ Incident

ST. LOUIS (PAI)–After Metro Transit workers waged an aggressive campaign that included leafleting passengers and the general public at garages, bus stops and MetroLink stops all over the St. Louis area, the Bi-State Development Agency (Metro) and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788 agreed on a fair contract that preserves workers’ retirement security in the form of a defined benefit pension plan, raises wages, and improves health care coverage.


But there’s still another big issue to tackle: The injection of a racist “Oreo” comment into the bargaining by Metro negotiators – and the agency’s response, or lack of it, to that.


“This is an historic day and a big victory for all of St. Louis. Working people in this city have been under attack for years, but today, Metro workers and their allies reversed the momentum,” said Local 788 President Mike Breihan.  “We drew a line in the sand and said, ‘No, you can’t take what little we have left.’”


Breihan announced the agreement at the Missouri AFL-CIO’s Convention in late September at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. The roughly 200 union delegates there responded with a standing ovation.


The agreement followed a dramatic month in the long-standing dispute between Metro and Local 788.  Metro workers leafleted riders at transit centers and organized demonstrations at Metro HQ to draw attention to the economic injustice perpetrated by Metro CEO John Nations on St. Louis riders and workers alike.


Metro workers have been toiling without a contract for three-and-a-half years and have not had a raise in six years.  The new contract, which workers ratified at the end of September, includes a 3 percent raise for Metro bus and train operators, clerical and maintenance staff, a 5 percent raise for mechanics and protection of workers’ defined benefit pension plan, which Metro had sought to replace with a 401(k) type plan. The raises are retroactive to July 1.


Metro management attempted, on numerous occasions, to racially divide workers during the negotiations.


One of the most egregious incidents was when members of Metro’s negotiating committee attempted to race-bait workers by distributing a recipe for “Oreo cookies” to members of Local 788 at the conclusion of a heated bargaining session.  The majority of Metro bus operators are African-American, while the local’s president is white.


The obvious message with the recipe was a racial slur that the union is “white on the inside and black on the outside,” like the cookie.


In response, ATU called on Metro CEO John Nations and elected officials to remove



staffers responsible for the incident.   Workers also launched an “Oreo” ad campaign in a local newspaper and local radio stations to highlight Metro’s attempts to racially divide workers.


ATU International President Larry Hanley said the union awaits a response from Govs. Jay Nixon, D-Mo., and Pat Quinn, D-Ill., on their positions about Metro government officials using racial slurs at the bargaining table.  Metro serves St. Louis and its suburbs on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River and the city of East St. Louis and surrounding areas on the Illinois side.


“This is how you use the ‘N’ word without saying it,” Hanley said. “It must be dealt with swiftly and with respect for the workers of St. Louis.”


Hours after ratifying a new 3-year labor contract after years of contentious negotiations, Local 788 members took to the streets outside Metro headquarters in downtown St. Louis on   Sept. 26, to demand Nations and elected officials to remove the staff responsible for race-baiting workers during the negotiations.


Breihan said Metro management attempted, on numerous occasions, to racially divide workers and divide the workers along job classifications between mechanics and operators during the negotiations.  The “Oreo cookie” was just one of the most-egregious incidents.


“He said, ‘Here, here’s a present for you guys,’” Breihan said, referring to one of Metro’s bargainers at the end of a July negotiating session.  “Basically, they’re saying this is a black union that’s white on the inside.  The leadership is white and the membership is black.”


Hanley, who sent a letter of outraged protest to Nations after the incident was first reported, traveled to St. Louis Friday for the rally and march in front of Metro headquarters.


“When we learned in Washington this organization sat at the bargaining table and tried to racially divide ATU Local 788, that they had the nerve to call us a bunch of Oreos, we were stunned,” Hanley said. “This is a 21st century transit agency where the people in charge are stuck in the 19th century.  This is an organization where racism is an accepted way of doing business.”


The ATU Latino Caucus, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), Jobs with Justice, the Missouri NAACP, Service Employees Local 1, CWA Local 6355, Laborers Local 110, the Missouri Alliance for Retired Americans and Show Me $15, the coalition of fast food workers fighting for $15 an hour and the right to form a union all joined ATU Local 788’s rally.


“Securing the agreement is a victory, but it doesn’t resolve the pain and outrage the Oreo incident caused.   This issue must be addressed,” Breihan said.   “After all our community has been through in the last month, we will not accept behavior like this,” he added, citing unrest in the suburban city of Ferguson, where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by a white police officer